A Study of the Body
Jerron Herman reinvents a classical form at Abrons Arts Center.
new York CityAbrons Arts Center
Jerron Herman: Vitruvian
May 19 – May 21, 2022
Five rectangular screens hang down like stair steps hovering over the stage of Jerron Herman’s VITRUVIAN. Extending in a diagonal line, each screen displays the same drawing by contemporary artist Chella Man. A big nod to Leonardo DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man (c. 1490), the image depicts two superimposed sketches of Herman’s body. In an obvious departure from the classical image, the body is drafted as a quick sketch with legs of differing lengths that push past the circular frame, and shorter arms that fail to reach it. Due to the varying dimensions of the screens, only one projection is whole; the others offer distorted versions that are elongated, truncated, and cut off. The fragmentation and asymmetry—set up through Man’s images in John D. Alexander’s scenic design—resonates immediately as a theme before Herman’s evening length solo on May 19, 2022, at Abrons Arts Center in lower Manhattan, even begins.
A circle inscribed over a square creates the frames for both DaVinci’s and Man’s drawings; this juxtaposition, in turn, creates other shapes. Herman moves on the edge of the frame in one of these shapes, lit in a small triangle of light upstage. He assumes an upright pose, only to fall abruptly onto his right side. Quiet music and a film start playing; ASL artist, Brandon Kazen-Maddox, signs in one screen as light and shadows play over fabric in the other screens. Upright once again, Herman traces large, slow circles with his right arm, gradually folding in his head, hips, and knees. In a sort of awakening, his body ripples ever larger, eventually forcing him to step out of his small corner.
In addition to Kazen-Maddox’s intermittent onscreen performance, text appears in brackets at regular intervals, offering descriptions of JJJJerome Ellis and James Harrison Monaco’s eclectic music and sound, and other phrases that feel almost like stage directions: words like “[watery]”; “[flute flourish]”; “[sorrowful saxophone]”; and “[steam engine energy].”
“[beat from afar]” pops up as Herman gains speed with quick footwork and small jumps, swivel turns, and level changes. His head and right arm continues to lead, lending his movement a propulsive momentum. As he expands into a large galloping circle, his left side drags along but it doesn’t seem to slow him down. He looks up in joy. A circle of neon lights up on the floor. It is his to claim.
For much of the performance, I find it hard to take in the full picture of any particular moment of VITRUVIAN. Part of this is due to the dimensions of the tall, narrow space that is Abrons’s Experimental Theater. The other part is by design. Alexander’s high contrast lighting design cuts the space up into different areas and shapes; this emphasizes what is lit, but also leaves a lot hidden in darkness. Likewise, Cayla Mae Simpson’s film plays over the multiple screens giving the impression we are always missing something happening off the edge of the screen. As the film travels between them, it also adds an extra layer of movement. The effect is more ambient when the focus is shadows on cloth or trees at dusk; but it becomes more bold, almost kaleidoscopic, when the film scrolls through multiple images of Herman—some as a kid, others as an artist at work—incorporating trails of neon colors. My field of vision and my attention are often divided between the screens and what I can see of Herman. I find myself wanting a break from the other elements to focus more fully on Herman’s dancing.
There is a palpable pleasure to Herman’s movement as it derives from and relates to his disabled body. And while this work clearly grapples with his relationship to symmetry and the classical form, there is no lack of proportion in the circular motions and generous bending of his full-bodied, expressive dancing. Later, he exhibits a similar confidence when he inhabits various states of stillness and rest. One section of the live performance finds him seated upstage left, his head leaning against the back wall. At a tempo so slow as if to defy the notion of movement, Herman lifts his left leg into a sidelight, the rest of his body obscured while his limb casts a large shadow across the wall. Taking his time, he moves through a series of sculptural poses. Each one exaggerates different parts of his body: an arm reaching backward, fingers extending, his leg bending and stretching to the sounds of a piano.
In the most stirring episode of his journey, Herman appears in the film, unobscured and unencumbered, posing for a series of portraits. Dressed in white, he sits on a stool surrounded by still life props. In one, he looks seductive with a cluster of grapes, donning the bored gaze of a model; in another, he stares into the distance like a visionary mid-thought, his right index finger pointing. If not for the occasional blinks of his eyes, it would be easy to mistake the extreme stillness for a photo. Underneath the screens, Herman paces back and forth, stopping momentarily to drape his arm over his head in dramatic profile, tongue out, before continuing on. He eventually drops to the ground, sitting inside his circle of light, legs split open wide.
In these moments where Herman is both the artist and art object, VITRUVIAN is a triumph of intention and reinvention, centering disability and celebrating Herman’s rebirth as his own divine form. It is a form worthy of serious study and wide influence.
VITRUVIAN will be available for streaming on-demand July 6-30, 2022 via abronsartscenter.org